Off Broadway Favorites of 2013

ImageI’m not calling this post the “Best of” Off Broadway 2013, because there is so much to see and so much that I didn’t see (i.e., Fun Home, Here Lies Love, Buyer & Seller, etc.).

However, here are a few words about some of my favorites.

Tally’s Folly (Roundabout): Two people (Matt Friedman and Sally Talley), one setting (An old boathouse on the Talley place, a farm near Lebanon, Missouri). Fortunately, the actors playing Matt & Sally in Roundabout’s revival of this 1979 Lanford Wilson Pulitzer-prize winning play were Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson. Their performances, along with the simplicity and truth of the play, wove a 97-minute spell over the audience as we watched two disparate people find love, in spite of their differences and the turbulent world around them. Every minute was glorious.

The Whale (Playwrights Horizons): Two words: Shuler Hensley. He plays Charlie, a 600-pound apartment-bound man whose deep unhappiness is causing him to slowly eat himself to death. Hensley, a Tony winner for his portrayal of Jed in the revival of Oklahoma, is one of our best stage actors. Wearing an enormous fat suit and breathing laboriously, he still manages to show us the humanity and beauty inside his character. It’s a performance I’ll never forget.

Nothing to Hide (Werner Entertainment/Ostar Productions at Signature): Starring Helder Guimarães and Derek DelGaudio. Using nothing more than decks of playing cards (and a cameo appearance by a sock monkey) these two masters of distraction and sleight of hand amuse and amaze audiences. Direction is by Renaissance man Neal Patrick Harris, who is President of the Academy of Magical Arts and—who knew?—a bona fide “magic geek”. DelGaudio is a Los Angeles-based magician who consults for Walt Disney Imagineering and has been named Close-up Magician of the Year for 2012 and 2013. Guimarães, a Portuguese now based in California, became the youngest ever World Champion of Card magic in 2006 at the age of 23. The show came to NYC from a record-breaking run at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. These charming performers make it look easy, but they will amaze you.

What’s It All About? (New York Theatre Workshop): It’s all about talent and creativity. Subtitled “Bacharach Reimagined,” this innovative production was conceived by Kyle Riabko, who has appeared on Broadway in Spring Awakening and Hair. Riabko, along with an energetic young cast of singers (who also play all of the instruments in the production) perform Riabko’s new arrangements of all those Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs that are etched into your brain: “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” “Alfie,” “Always Something There to Remind Me,” and many more. The songs are all about love and loss, and here the emphasis is on the lyrics, which are often very touching. There are several sofas on both sides of the stage where some members of the audience are seated. I was lucky to be seated there, practically on the set. It brought back memories of long evenings spent in friends’ basements, hanging out listening to records. Riabko and the other 20-somethings in the show allow the audience to hear these old standards in new, exciting ways. I’m hoping for a move to Broadway.

Old Hats (Signature): There’s a lot of angst and sturm und drang Off Broadway, and it can get depressing. What a joy then, to experience an evening of pure delight with three comedic pros (Bill Irwin, David Shiner, and Nellie McKay). Irwin, a Tony Award-winning actor and original member of the Pickle Family Circus, and Shiner, a former street performer who later starred with Cirque du Soleil, have performed together before, in Fool Moon on Broadway. That production won a Tony for Unique Theatrical Experience. The effervescent Nellie McKay serves as Old Hats’ musical director and performs vocals, piano, and ukulele (an instrument in short supply in today’s theater). Irwin and Shine mix it up, alternating old Vaudeville routines with really creative new bits, especially one involving the use of an iPad. So much fun, I smiled throughout the entire performance.

The Explorers Club (Manhattan Theatre Club). Speaking of smiling throughout a performance…here’s what I wrote about The Explorers Club in a previous Shari on the Aisle post:

Written by Nell Benjamin (Tony and Drama Desk-nominated playwright of Legally Blonde), it is an hour and 45 minutes of madcap delight. When you’re not chuckling you will at least have a smile on your face. (If not, sorry—you are a hopeless curmudgeon). The entire cast is top notch, and the incredibly detailed set by Donyale Werle, crammed with clubby details, is practically worth the price of admission. Delightful, silly fun.

Best Broadway Plays 2013

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It was a very good year for Broadway theatre lovers. Here are my picks, not really in any order, although I don’t think anyone would argue too strongly about The Glass Menagerie headlining the group. (I apologize for the very long post).

The Glass Menagerie: Double punch: Tennessee Williams, one of our greatest American playwrights, and Cherry Jones, one of the most talented actresses of her generation. It is always a privilege to see Ms. Jones on stage. She shines, as expected, as the overbearing matriarch Amanda. But it is Zachary Quinto, (an experienced stage actor who is better known to filmgoers as the new Spock) as Williams’ stand-in Tom, who leads the production into the sublime. His performance of Tom’s opening soliloquy, spoken in darkness at the edge of the stage, weaves a spell that lasts through the final curtain. Celia Keenan-Bolger (Laura) and Brian J. Smith (The Gentleman Caller) are also fine. I didn’t love some of the director’s staging decisions, specifically, Laura’s appearance and exit from inside the sofa (really) which distracted and detracted from the play’s magic, and the use of pantomime for some stage business. But given the beauty of the overall production, let’s not dwell on it. This is probably the best Glass Menagerie we’re going to see for a long time.

Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike: Christopher Durang’s multi-award winning play provides all of the drama and angst of Chekov, but with way more laughs. It’s intelligent fun. The main characters are all named after Chekov characters (except for Spike) and the action takes place in a Bucks County farmhouse, an updated version of a typical Chekovian setting. The plot involves sibling resentments, unfulfilled dreams, Voodoo, and stepping out of one’s comfort zone. Each member of the 6-person ensemble gives a perfect performance: David Hyde Pierce (who wows in a Luddite rant), Sigourney Weaver, Kristine Nielsen, Shalita Grant, Billy Magnussen, and Genevieve Angelson. Kristine Nielsen is especially fine as Vanya and Masha’s lonely sister Sonia. Her shining moment occurs during a telephone conversation with her own “gentleman caller” that involves a hysterical imitation of Maggie Smith and her character’s slow, amazed realization that the man on the phone is actually interested in her. (She was nominated for a Tony but lost out to Ms. Tyson. Hyde Pierce was also nominated, losing to Tracy Letts). It’s a truly unique evening at the theatre and possibly Durang’s best work. He took home aTony for Best Play.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: As with The Glass Menagerie, this is one of our most celebrated American plays, in a 50th anniversary production that is likely the best we’re going to see in a long time. Also, like Menagerie, it’s a four-character intimate piece where every cast member turns in a perfect, vital performance. The 2013 version of Edward Albee’s masterpiece featured the original Steppenwolf cast, led by Tracy Letts and Amy Morton (the playwright and star of the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning play August: Osage County) as George and Martha. Carrie Coon and Madison Dirks play Honey and Nick, a young couple who find themselves in way over their heads as they are drawn into George and Martha’s boozy, dysfunctional household. The play is as funny as it is sad, as intriguing as it is deeply unsettling. Honey and Nick are really stand-ins for us, the audience, who like unwitting spectators at a horrible traffic accident, can’t turn away, can’t help being fascinated by George and Martha’s every move. It’s ultimately thrilling and exhausting. Tonys won: Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance by a Lead Actor in a Play (Letts), Best Direction of a Play (Pam MacKinnon).

The Winslow Boy: This excellent Old Vic/Roundabout production is a revival of a Terence Rattigan play that originally premiered on Broadway in 1947. It is based on a true story about a young boy who is expelled from his British military school for allegedly stealing a small sum of money from a classmate. He swears his innocence—and his father risks both his health and his family’s future to pursue a court case in his son’s defense. Is the father foolishly obsessed with a futile battle? Is the boy innocent or guilty? How far should one go in pursuit of justice? The play doesn’t necessarily answer these questions, but it is never less than riveting throughout its 2 hour and 40 minute run time.

In less capable hands, the play could easily become trivial or tiresome, but this cast, especially Michael Cumpsty (Desmond Curry), Roger Rees (Arthur Winslow), and Alessandro Nivola (Sir Robert Morton) convey every nuance of the text through subtle facial expressions and vocal expertise.

The Trip to Bountiful: Horton Foote’s beautiful, touching play, in a near-perfect production led by the amazing Miss Cicely Tyson in a performance that I will always remember. In a previous post, I wrote about a special “theatrical moment” that occurs during the play: It happens in the second act. Cicely Tyson (as Carrie Watts) has momentarily escaped the suffocating disdain of her daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae (Vanessa Williams, gorgeous, but perhaps a bit older than the character). Late at night in a nearly deserted bus station, Carrie raises her arms and rapturously sings an old hymn, “Blessed Assurance.” Spontaneously, the many church ladies (black and white) in the audience began to sing along. The feeling shared by all of us with a character up on the stage was so true and so powerful. It was a moment.

Macbeth: Starring Alan Cumming as Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, King Duncan, Malcolm, Macduff, etc. (You get the idea). Technically, this is not a one-man show, as the always excellent Mr. Cumming is joined by Jenny Sterlin and Brendan Titley as (well, what are they exactly?) medical attendants of some sort in what appears to be a high security facility for the insane). They come and go as Cumming performs Shakespeare’s play. My favorite scene was when, as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, he made love to himself—no easy feat. I thought it was a compelling, engaging evening of theatre. But if you haven’t read the Scottish play since junior high, you would be advised to dip into the Sparks notes to remind yourself of what’s what and who’s who. Because all of the characters look like Alan Cumming.

Special shout outs for stunning performances:

Fiona Shaw in The Testament of Mary. No surprise: Broadway audiences didn’t want to see a one-woman play about the Virgin Mary lamenting the death of her son. If this play had been produced by one of New York’s many excellent off-Broadway membership companies, I think it would have been better received and more successful. As for me, I was there opening night and I’m fortunate to have been able to see the estimable Ms. Shaw in a very moving performance.

Tom Sturridge in Orphans. As the feline, feral, and surprisingly intelligent Phillip living in dysfunctional squalor with his controlling brother Treat, Tom Sturridge leaps around the stage like a paranoid tomcat with ADD. The physicality of his performance is electrifying, as he jumps effortlessly from staircase to couch to table. I was gratified that he was nominated for a Tony (losing to Tracy Letts; no shame in that), but I felt that the production didn’t get the recognition it deserved.

Special Shari on the Aisle Stinko Award for Worst Play of the Year: The Anarchist. Although this show actually opened (and closed) in December, 2012, it was so dreadful and disappointing, especially given the talents involved (Patti LuPone, Debra Winger, and David Mamet), that attention must be paid.

Next Time: Off Broadway Favorites

The Best of 2013 (Part I)

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Do you agree with my picks? Disagree? Have your own favorites? Lemme know.

Best 2013 Broadway Musicals

Matilda the Musical: Thanks to Tim Minchin’s cheeky lyrics, Matthew Warchus’ energetic and innovative staging, and the revolting children singing, dancing, jumping, and tumbling their way across the stage, this show was the high point of 2013 New York City musical theatre. (It should have won the Tony for Best Musical). The cast was also swell—Bertie Carvel (Tony nom), Gabriel Ebert (Tony Award), Lauren Ward (Tony nom), and Lesli Margherita. I’m hoping to see this one again if I can swing it.

Pippin: Helmed by Diane Paulus, one of the most talented directors working on Broadway today, this revival of the 1972 hit show does what art is supposed to do: it reenvisions something and takes it to another level entirely. That’s certainly what Paulus does in the show’s stunning first act. The opening number, “Magic to Do,” is a mind blower. There is so much marvelous business going on all at once that one doesn’t know where to look. Patina Miller is a goddess and Andrea Martin stops the show with her “No Time at All” (performed on a trapeze). Act 2? Not so amazing, but that’s OK. The show, Martin, and Miller deserved their Tonys

Cinderella: Technically the title of this show is “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella.” I was reminded of the importance of those names above the title the moment the full orchestra started playing the overture. The music is so lush and gorgeous, and it’s of a quality and scope one doesn’t hear very often in today’s theatres. Here’s the other thing about this production: the stagecraft is absolultely magical. There are onstage costume changes where you literally cannot believe your eyes. And the original cast, Laura Osnes, Santino Fontana, Victoria Clark, and Harriet Harris—all Broadway pros—was pretty much perfect.

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder: An evening of nonstop delightful, manic musical mayhem, thanks in large measure to Jefferson Mays’s artful, indefatigable portrayal of 8 doomed members of the D’Ysquith family. Bryce Pinkham also shines as Monty, the lost D’Ysquith who sets out to eradicate the 8 family members standing between him and the throne of England. Can we love such a scoundrel who has “Poison in his Pocket?” Absolutely.

**Special Note** What’s that you say?  Did I accidentally leave Kinky Boots off the list? No accident, dear readers. Yes, the show had a couple of terrific numbers (Everybody Say Yeah and Raise You Up) but overall, the lyrics and music didn’t measure up, especially when compared with Tim Minchin’s really witty and terrific work in Matilda. And yes, Billy Porter did a fine job and the costumes were wonderful. But that’s about it. A disappointment. And it’s not on my list. But with all those Tonys, I’m sure it will survive.